Passion for history pays off for Douglas High School teacher Ethan Petite
HISTORY TEACHER AWARD
Inaugurated in 2004, the History Teacher of the Year Award recognizes one K-12 teacher from each state, the District of Columbia, Department of Defense schools and US Territories. This fall, a National History Teacher of the Year will be selected from the pool of state winners. The national award will be presented by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner at a ceremony in New York City on Nov. 8. Founded in 1994 by philanthropists Richard Gilder and Lewis E. Lehrman, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History is the nation’s leading organization dedicated to K-12 American history education. The Institute’s mission is to promote the knowledge and understanding of American history through educational programs and resources.
A passion for the past has turned out to be a rewarding experience for Douglas High School history teacher Ethan Petite.
In more ways than one, if you ask Petite, who was recently honored as 2017 Nevada History Teacher of the Year by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
Petite has taught English and social studies at Douglas High, and before that, at Carson Valley Middle School, since 2000. His recent work with students has included U.S. government, world history, advanced placement world history and a new course he developed in the past year, the history of human conflict.
That history of human conflict class focuses on the study and use of replicas of historic items, including a Civil War reenactment staged at the high school in late March.
Petite, himself a 1995 Douglas High graduate, gives credit for the elective class to his students. He began by talking to students in his five classes and also with past students.
“I sat down the year before with all of the students that I had and said, ‘OK, if you were to take a history elective, what would you want?’” Petite said. “We brainstormed and came up with about 120 different topics, and by the end of the week, we had narrowed it down to some sort of military history class; a class about current events, mostly terrorism; and then a class about genocide.
“I said, ‘We can’t do all of them,’ and they said, ‘Sure we can,’” he added with laugh. “So that’s where the idea came for those three topics under the heading of ‘History of Human Conflict.’ Right from the beginning, it was very student-driven. They gave me ideas of what they wanted then this last year I tried to honor that by incorporating as many of those into lessons as I could.”
It was the students who suggested they would like to see a reenactment presentation. Among the considerations was a Roman Legion group that does reenactments, however, the Las Vegas-based group was unable to mobilize to Minden on such short notice. Then came another idea.
“I talked to a couple of the Civil War reenactment groups, they were super excited, and our principal, Mr. Marty Swisher was just great about helping us get that all set up,” Petite said.
Through the reenactment, students were taken back more than 150 years to the Civil War, right up to the process of learning how to load and fire an actual cannon.
“You know, once again, student ideas,” Petite said. “I just tried to help facilitate the different things that they were interested in. To create a good class, it usually takes about three years, so last year we kind of built the foundation and the next couple of years we’ll try to add to it. I think the Civil War reenactment, we’ll try to do that again, definitely.
“That’s the goal of any history class is to help the students make connections between the present and the past. So that’s something I really try to push hard is to get them to make connections across time and space.”
Petite smiles now when he looks back and reflects on how he decided to become a career educator.
You see, teaching wasn’t on his radar when he was a busy student at Douglas more than 20 years ago. He was a standout sprinter for the track and field team, participant in Marty Cronin’s forensics program and an active member of the Fish Springs Volunteer Fire Department.
Oh, and by the way, he received an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
“When I left high school, I thought that I was going to have a military career,” Petite said. “As it turned out, I did not like being at West Point or in the military. I was only there for the summer, so when I came home, I was like, ‘What am I going to do?’”
He enrolled in classes in then Western Nevada Community College and at the University of Nevada, and one thing sort of led to another. “I started taking my general ed classes, and of course, I love history, so I started taking history classes,” Petite said. “And then I helped coach track because they needed some help. My coaches, Lyle Freeman and Ellen Lucas, had stepped aside, and Dan Makley had taken over the program and he needed help. Coach Makley told me at the end of my first year coaching, ‘You should really look at being a teacher.’
“But I said, ‘I don’t want to be a teacher,” he added, laughing. “On his advice, I took an education class at UNR. It was sort of on a dare, basically.” Petite also responded to advice from other teachers who had influenced him at Douglas, including Randy Green and Phyllis Bateman and Jeanne Turnbeaugh. “I finally decided I’ll take one class just to kind of try it, and I totally fell in love with it,” Petite said. “It was Educational Leadership 101 and by the time I was done, I was totally hooked.”
Petite did his student teaching at Douglas in the spring of 2000. He met his future wife, Kelley Yost, while teaching at CVMS and they were married in September 2001.
“That was right after 9/11,” Petite said. “That was an interesting time to teach, let me tell you. The whole day, all my classes, we basically had CNN on and we spent the whole day watching and trying to figure out what was going on.”
Today, Petite calls on his own history when he tries to mentor students on what to expect in their future. “I used to teach government and personal finance, and a lot of them would have things very well planned out. I told them, ‘I did, too, and then two months after I thought my life was all planned out for the next 20 years, it changed,’ so you never know how things are going to go,” Petite said. “And then I have a lot of kids who really don’t have a plan at all. I just tell them, ‘Keep trying things. Take classes. Try different jobs. Find out what your interests are. Keep moving forward and see what works for you, and sooner or later you’ll find something that you love doing. That’s kind of what happened to me. I just sort of fell into it and so far, it’s worked out.”